By Kate Gavino

It’s a picturesque Sunday afternoon in Central Park, and some of the overheard conversations among a group of athletes congregating around the dust patch/soccer field go as follow:

“I’ve been saying it for months: There needs to be stricter broom regulations.”

“When did he get a six-pack? Did he always have that?”

“I hope the snitch isn’t a complete asshole this time.”

The name of the game is Quidditch, or to be more exact, Muggle Quidditch. The game that stemmed from the Harry Potter books is one of the fastest growing team sports in the country thanks to rabid fans eager to bring the wizarding sport to life, and its yearly Quidditch World Cup is now covered by everyone from The New York Times to CNN. And once you get over the odd sight of people running around with brooms in between their legs, you can see that it’s a complex contact sport (mouthguard-required). Surprisingly, it is a perfect fit for New York City.

New York City is home to five International Quidditch Association (IQA)-sanctioned teams: NYU Nundu, NY Badassilisks, Macaulay Marauders, NYDC Capitalists and The Quiddwitches. Each Sunday, members from these teams and the surrounding area gather in Central Park for friendly pick-up games that garner a fair share of amused onlookers. Pick-up sports have a troubled history finding space in the city to play, but the Quidditch players make do with what they have. “Technically we all should have permits for the areas we use,” Amanda Dallas, founder of the NYDC Capitalists and the Big Apple Quidditch Conference, tells me, “but it's hard to get funding for Quidditch teams on both the collegiate and community levels, so we just wing it and hope for the best.”

Central Park West proves to be the established space, though it took some time to settle in. Jared Rohrer, founder of the Badassilisks, tells me how they once practiced in Riverside Park before being ousted by soccer teams. NYU Nundu practices in East River Park and the Capitalists in Prospect Park, but Central Park remains the easiest place for Quidditch players to gather undisturbed. The so-called “Dust Bowl” isn’t the most attractive plot of land, but it provides good enough foundation for the wobbly goal hoops (the only required equipment for a Quidditch “pitch,” or field) and the constant tackling and shoving. The latter makes Quidditch the very definition of a contact sport, and during Sunday’s pick-up game, I often hear players on the sidelines yell “Beat her up!” or “Cannonball his ass!”

Gender is an important part of Muggle Quidditch — in fact, the IQA goes out of the way to make sure of it. The most interesting part of the 117-page Official IQA Rulebook (seventh edition) is the “the two-minimum” gender rule:

A Quidditch game requires each team to have at least two players on the field who identify with a different gender than at least two other players. The gender that a player identifies with is considered to be that player’s gender, which may or may not be the same as that person’s sex. We call this the “two-minimum” rule.
The IQA accepts those who don’t identify within the binary gender system, and acknowledge that not all of our players identify as male or female. We welcome people of all identities and genders into our league.

Indeed, boys tackle girls and vice versa, and very little is made of it. During a game, I witness a player brutally hip check an opponent, only to later apologize once the game is over with an affectionate bear hug.

The sense of camaraderie is thick among Quidditch players. After all, they come together based on their obsession with Harry Potter, a fanbase that is known for its fervid love of diversity (just look at the out-of-the-closet Dumbledore and his goat-loving brother). Though Muggle Quidditch often differs from J.K. Rowling’s version, I am hard-pressed to find any players who weren’t obsessed with the book series. Most of the players had met through The Group That Shall Not Be Named, a Harry Potter meet-up, and they went on to recruit their friends, fellow Potterheads.

As the sport grew in popularity, teams sprung up beyond college campuses. “Community teams” like the Badassalisks and the Capitalists became popular among non-students. There aren’t any monetary rewards yet at any of the official tournaments, so money remains an issue for many teams. The cost of traveling, uniforms and equipment adds up, so fundraisers and Kickstarters have become the norm on several Quidditch Facebook groups. The Quidditch World Cup, held yearly, is everyone’s goal, but even the most talented team must figure out a way to pay for plane tickets for each member.

Aside from financial problems, the sport must also contend with its weirdness factor. One of the biggest hurdles in making the game Muggle-friendly (aside from our painful inability to fly) was the golden snitch. In the Harry Potter series, the snitch is a small, winged golden ball that whizzes around the pitch, and it is up to the seeker to catch it, thus winning his team 150 points and ending the game. In Muggle Quidditch, the snitch is a golden-clad human that runs around the pitch with a tennis ball encased in a sock that is Velcro-ed to his waistband. Seekers attempt to steal the ball by any means, though it is only worth 30 points. This was changed in order to have the game’s score focused more on goals, rather than the stealing of the snitch. The snitch is by far the most entertaining part of the game, and the player donning the golden attire is allowed to ham it up, even going so far as riding a bicycle or chucking water balloons. (According to the rulebook: “If the snitch runner intends to do something like this, the head referee and team captains must be informed before the game.”)

Coupled with the human snitch and the inclusion of brooms — which range from sticks found on the ground to run-of-the-mill house brooms to replicas of Harry Potter’s Firebolt — Quidditch is both a sport and a spectacle. Though some teams have begun recruiting professional athletes, there will always be a scrappy, DIY quality to the game. Amanda Dallas recalls recruiting three merchant marines, “one [who] was a state wrestling champ and another an avid handball player,” but despite the advantage these players gave her team, the competition was stiff.

It seems that teams will always comprise primarily of fans who simply love the books — but that love can bring out some surprising talents. “One of our best beaters, Irvin, is a [Harry Potter] fan and a dancer who once described himself as ‘totally uninterested in sports,” Clay Dockery, head coach of the Badassilisks, tells me, “but he goes nuts when you give him a bludger [a dodgeball to strike other players].”

Playing Quidditch seems to be an extension of the book series, the same way Trekkies learn Vulcan or cos-players don face paint. There’s a gleeful spirit to the game that remains, even with the shoving and the recruiting of skilled athletes. “We want [our] team to be a family, a group that is competitive and plays hard, but also cares about each other,” Dockery says before adding: “We want to do all that and win.”

Muggle Quidditch seems to embody everything New York as a city embraces: competitiveness, diversity and sheer oddity. It seems possible that the game will one day find its place among venerable inner-city sports like soccer and street hockey. But until then, in their small corner of the park, the city Quidditch players seem perfectly happy just beating the shit out of each other.